Why Left is left out? Interview with Eric Rahim

“But we have to be realists; we need to bring together all progressive forces in some kind of a united front aiming at social democratic reforms. A Marxist party in today’s conditions cannot be a ‘revolutionary’ party.”

Long before the 70s and 80s when Marxism became a fashion in Pakistan and intellectuals, professors and university students became overnight revolutionaries without any grassroots connections, there was a committed generation of political workers who

Dr. Eric Rahim

tried to unite likeminded people on a single platform. Eric Rahim, Hassan Nasser, Major Ishaq, Sobho Gianchandani and Sajjad Zaheer were some of those real revolutionaries who were jailed, tortured and some lost their lives for their ideological commitment to equality and democracy.

Eric Rahim is one of those revolutionaries who worked as part of the Communist Party in 1940-1950 and also became target of the state repression. He was introduced to Marxism in 1946 by one of his Hindu professors of Forman Christian College, Lahore who gave him the Indian Communist Party newsletter “The People’s Age” to read. Later when he moved to Karachi in 1947-48 with an ambition to become a journalist, this is what happened next, in his own words:

“One day as I was walking along Bunder Road, I saw the red flag hanging out of the balcony of a building approximately midway between the Dow Medical College and the old Municipal building. I went up to the party’s office and introduced myself to a gentleman, by the name of Hangal, and asked if there was anything I could do for the party. I remember seeing Sobho Gianchandani and Sharaf Ali (who had just arrived from India as a refugee) but I did not speak to them. Hangal gave me the task of taking cuttings from different newspapers and filing them according to the subject matter.”

He worked with Hassen Nasser in Karachi and was jailed with other progressive workers for eleven months.  After working for Pakistan Times and Dawn as a journalist he moved back to Lahore in 1957 to join Pakistan Times where he also actively worked with Major Ishaq who later founded the Kissan Mazdoor Party.

Eric left Pakistan for England in 1958 with the arrival of the first Martial Law in the country.  His intention was to get a university degree in Economics and come back to work for Pakistan Times. The newspaper, however, ceased to be independent after it was nationalized by the first Martial Law regime of Ayub Khan.

Eric consequently, stayed in England and received a doctoral degree from University College, London. Since then, Dr. Eric Rahim has been teaching and doing research in economics and development studies at Strathclyde University in Glasgow.

This interview narrates a fascinating story and views of a stalwart revolutionary who had to leave his country under the threat of state repression but somehow the country does not want to leave him!

Q. According to the classic Marxist theory, capitalism has to become a dominant system before conditions are ripe for revolution. This, however, did not happen in the 1917 revolution in Russia where the social unrest and deteriorating economic conditions led to an organized revolution. Pakistan is still in the clutches of feudalism, let alone industrialization. But the country is heading toward a social anarchy with deteriorating economic conditions, unemployment and the lack of basic facilities for citizens, along with a large unsatisfied urban youth. What kind of change, if any, do you foresee?

What kind of change can one foresee? We must go back to the fundamentals. Pakistan was an artificial creation. It was created on the basis of Muslims’ separation from the Hindus. The Muslim community itself was internally heterogeneous. The task confronting the leadership at the time of Pakistan’s creation was how to weld its ethnically diverse communities into a nation. In other word, how to create a nation state. The leadership thought it could create a nation state under the banner of Islam and on the basis of fear of India. In this task the leadership failed dismally as was demonstrated by the separation of East Pakistan (numerically a larger part of the country) from the West in 1971. The Left, in the shape of Mian Iftikharuddin, The Pakistan Times and the daily Imroze were then calling for the recognition of Pakistan’s ethnic diversity (genuine provincial autonomy), and a democratic political system. That could have been the foundation on which to build a nation state. But that of course did not happen. We have to ask, why did it not?

This is no place to go into this question in any detail. But I will point out that West Pakistan (where political power lay) in socio-economic terms consisted of some of the most backward parts of the sub-continent. Think of large parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and its tribal areas, Balochistan, the feudal agrarian structure in Sindh and large parts of Punjab. (Compare the agrarian structure in western Punjab with that in the part that went to India.) Think of the political leadership at the time – the Khuros, Talpurs, Mamdots, Daulatanas, Noons, Kalabaghs, all feudals to the core. Their leadership depended not on any democratic base (as, for instance, did that of Nehru and his colleagues, but on their feudal credentials. The Left forces, for instance, trade unions, peasant movements, the Communist Party, other democratic elements, were too weak to provide a counterbalance to the forces of reaction. Thus, given the weak political structure it was inevitable that the army would come to acquire a political role – a role that would be inconceivable in any country where the leadership could claim democratic mandate. (Again, think of India.)

In its foreign policy, given the country’s hostility with its larger neighbour (and the bloody circumstances in which the partition took place), it was felt that the country needed a strong friend, a protector, as it were. Thus we had military alliances with the United States which gave the country the status of a dependency. Relations with India have continued to determine the country’s foreign policy and its dependence on the United States. (Now that relations with the US are strained, some in the country are looking for a different ‘big brother’.)

To cut a long story short: Pakistan has not, after 65 years of ‘independence’ become a  nation state; internally, sovereignty is fragmented; externally, we are economically and politically dependent on others. Foreign powers openly and blatantly shape our internal political arrangements. This situation is the result of certain historical factors. Poor leadership has had a role in the development of this situation, but that is relatively smaller part of the story. Or, perhaps I should say that poor leadership is also part of the bigger story.

In order to make any progress, the Left must try to understand the big story. To answer the question: Where do we go from here? We must first ask: How did we get here? Only then can we answer the question (the question you asked) – what kind of change do we want? As Marx said famously, men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Let us start to understand the ‘circumstances’ and the constraints in which we find ourselves.

Q. In India the Left has become a vital part of the political process and has effectively ruled in several states since partition. However, apart from the PPP, the real Left in Pakistan was never able to come to this level except ANP. Do you think if progressive forces join hands they can play a vital and effective role in the body politics of Pakistan?

I think the answer to the first part of this question has been answered in the preceding discussion. Our post-independence history is very different from India’s, essentially because of the initial conditions from which they and we started.

I do not think that the PPP is a Left party. Its founder, Z. A. Bhutto was an autocrat, a populist, man with a feudal outlook, without any vision. Through his statements and general behavior he presented himself as a man of the Left. His popular support was not derived from any genuine reform that he achieved but from his blatantly populist appeal. In countries with low level of political development, people are carried away with such an appeal. His positive side lay in his secular standpoint (which when he was on the run was ready to compromise – by having the Ahmadis declared a non-Muslim minority).  At the present time the PPP is unpopular because its leadership is associated with corrupt practices and its failure to make any improvements in the living conditions of the people. Many of my friends in Pakistan support the PPP because they think that it is only this party that stands between them and military rule. Support for the PPP should be finely nuanced. They should honestly criticise it for its failings.

Q. You have mentioned elsewhere that a democratic, progressive party that can provide a platform to all progressive forces in Pakistan can be a better strategy rather than a revolutionary and Marxist party in the current political environment in Pakistan. What’s your justification for this strategy?

A revolutionary party’ in Pakistan? On the Bolshevik model or that of the Chinese Communists under Mao’s leadership? Are we serious? Progressive forces in Pakistan are very weak, they have hardly any organisation and they have little or no social roots. Progressive people in Pakistan have to choose their political goals realistically. In today’s conditions modest social democratic reforms would be an enormous step forward. In my interview you refer to, I did not say that we should not have a Marxist party – I think we should have one which broadly derives its inspiration from Marx’s thought. But we have to be realists; we need to bring together all progressive forces in some kind of a united front aiming at social democratic reforms. A Marxist party in today’s conditions cannot be a ‘revolutionary’ party.

Q. There are two thoughts on how to unite progressive parties in Pakistan. For some, a top-down strategy at the party level could be a viable option but several attempts have been made on these lines with little success. Others think the process should be initiated from the grassroots to provincial and then the national level. What are your thoughts on these strategies?

I think that the distinction between ‘top level’ and ‘grass roots level’ is false. ‘Grass roots level’ without leadership is devoid of any thought or policy, and the ‘top-level’ without the grass roots has obviously no ground to stand on. Progressive people – teachers, students, trade unionists and so on, need to get together, and attempt to form a political vision based on a correct understanding of the current situation and the nature of their resources.

Q. When you and your comrades were busy in the early days of independence in organizing progressive groups in Pakistan as part of the Communist Party, the state apparatus did everything to curb the movement using different repressive tactics. Today there are several conservative, violent groups who also enjoy the support of the establishment. Although these Jihadi outfits lack mass support, they have become a huge destructive force in the society today. What kind of measures do you propose to progressive parties to counter this trend?

Let us be honest. Jihadi groups, and the religious political Right wing forces more generally, draw their support, apart from sections of the state apparatus and some foreign countries, from the social conservatism of our people, especially in Punjab and parts of K-Pakhtunkhwa. (I think Punjab is the main source of the problem.) People may not vote for them in elections but that is part of the nature of the electoral process. People vote for specific candidates for all kind of different reasons – feudal and caste connections, local factors, traditional party loyalties, etc. But Jihadi groups have social roots. (It is important to recognise this fact.) If in time progressive forces do gain political influence and are seen as presenting even a modicum of threat to the established order, the state apparatus (supported by certain foreign powers) will certainly make use of these groups. That would be a problem that would need to be confronted.

Q. As you know, there is a surge of violence and hatred against Muslim and non-Muslim minorities and women in today’s Pakistan. As a member of a minority religion, did you see similar discrimination when you were in Pakistan?

I did not look at the world as member of a minority religious group. However, I recall anti-Ahmadi movement in the early 1950s. I remember, in the early 1950s, attending public meetings in Karachi Aram Bagh where speakers quite overtly incited their audiences to violence against the Ahmadi community. Then there were anti-Ahmadi riots and the imposition of martial law in Lahore. But there was no open hostility towards the Christian community, nor against the Hindus. The situation today is the result of a gradual process in which religious fanaticism has become much more powerful than it was during the 60s or the 70s. Left people put all the blame on Ziaul Haq. That is rather a simplistic way of thinking, not going to the root of the problem.

Q. You have worked for Pakistan Times and Dawn as a journalist in the 40s and 50s. How do you compare journalism then and now in terms of professionalism, ethical standards, and censorship by the state?

I find it difficult to answer this question. Today the scope of the media is enormously larger than what it was then. As far as freedom of the press is concerned the situation changed dramatically and disastrously with the imposition of the Ayub martial law.

Q. How do you look back at your lifelong experience as a young political worker and journalist in Pakistan and as an academic scholar in England now? If you have to start over, would you like to be, a journalist, a political activist or a university professor?

In 1957-58, I was beginning to feel that my journalistic career was reaching a cul-de-sac. I had been The Pakistan Times Karachi correspondent and had reported on the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly and the great political events of the day. Now I was a senior sub-editor. What next? I thought I would take leave from the newspaper, go to London to study economics, and return and become a columnist writing on economic issues. Then came the martial law and the ‘nationalisation’ of The Pakistan Times . That was the end of my journalistic career. In London I did quite well in my Honours exams and was awarded a two-year research grant by the University. Towards the end of my second year of PhD study at University College London I was offered a lectureship in economics in Strathclyde University. That was 1963.

I am still here. I am lucky to have had two professions in my life, and enjoyed working in them both. If The Pakistan Times had remained an independent newspaper I would now be sitting in Lahore writing my weekly economics column. Perhaps there is a parallel universe; if there is one, then I am sitting in Lahore writing my weekly economic review and also sitting in Glasgow pursuing my academic interests. And happy in both. Sounds great!

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